Cardinals say ban on earmarks is not forever

Three Republican cardinals on the House Appropriations Committee say they view the ban on earmarks as temporary and that lawmakers should retain the right to direct spending to their districts. 

None of the three spending-subcommittee chairmen have a specific timeframe or plan in mind to resume earmarks, but they said earmarking should be restored once the public has more confidence in the process.

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“I don’t find a problem with me deciding that I want some of the money in the state and tribal assistance grants going to help a community in Idaho rebuild their water system,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the new chairman of the Interior and Environment spending subcommittee and a close friend of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who ushered in the new GOP rules. 

“I can make that determination because I know that district better than somebody from the EPA,” he added. 

House Republicans adopted a two-year moratorium on earmarks last year after a midterm election landslide won in part on a campaign promise of fiscal discipline. While earmarks represent a tiny fraction of government spending, they have been seen as a symbol of waste because of projects such as the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

The moratorium was adopted easily, but appropriators at the time chafed against the restrictions to their power. The comments from Simpson and other cardinals, made in separate interviews with The Hill, suggest the issue continues to simmer under the surface.

Commerce and Justice subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said he believes the earmark moratorium should be temporary and that the blanket ban unfairly limits the ability of lawmakers to make policy.

As an example, he noted that he created the Iraq Study Group examining the Iraq war through a $1 million amendment to a foreign operations appropriations bill. Earmarking allowed Wolf to assign the task of organizing the study to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to ensure it would be conducted fairly.

“I couldn’t say who would do the study now” under the earmark ban, Wolf said. He said that this year he wants to create an Afghanistan-Pakistan study group, but that with the earmark ban in place it will be up to the administration to decide who examines the problem-plagued war effort there.

Homeland Security subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said he supports the earmark ban for now — until lawmakers figure out how best to reform the process.  

“If you look at my past, I’ve always supported earmarks,” Aderholt said. “I’m not opposed to us putting a moratorium on it until we can get a better handle on how to address it.”

He said the problem with earmarks is that “I think that the American people have lost confidence in the way earmarks have been done here.”

Two other subpanel chairmen, commonly known as cardinals, didn’t go so far as to call the ban temporary, but did suggest it should come under further examination in the future. 

“My view is when we look at earmarks, it is a constitutional responsibility to direct spending, but the perception is that it is something we shouldn’t be doing. I don’t know when or if we would do it again,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the head of the Legislative Branch subcommittee, said. “Right now, they’re off the table … if it does come back there will have to be some further reforms.”

Transportation subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham (R-Iowa), another friend of Boehner’s, said that he supports the earmark ban “at this point.”

 “I think there is a constitutional role for members of Congress to be able to decide where the federal government’s dollars go, and certainly members of Congress should have a role in that, but at this point I am very supportive of the moratorium,” he said. “We have got to send a message that this is not business as usual and we need to cut spending.” 

Another cardinal said it would be up to the full GOP conference to determine the future of earmarks. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee, declined to offer a personal opinion. 

“Those kinds of decisions are made by the Republican Conference,” he emphasized.

Simpson said the GOP conference made a decision to ban earmarks for two years, and that he is supporting that decision. Still, he suggests, the inability to earmark will eventually make the practice popular again. 

“But there is going to come a time when somebody’s going to need to do something in their district — totally appropriate — and they’re going to find that working with the agency is difficult because they might have a different view and they won’t be able to earmark money to do something that is totally appropriate to do,” Simpson said. 

“What we have really done is turn authority over to the administrative branch of government, something we have been doing for 200 years, and I think it needs to stop and Congress needs to re-establish some of its authority. That means the ability to direct funding.”

 Simpson said he looks forward to coming up with further reforms that might satisfy critics. But he noted that before the ban, he had to post earmarks on his website and sign financial disclosures and that earmarks had to be within already authorized programs, so it is hard to see what new reforms will work.